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Scott D. Pierce: While James Corden’s performance in ‘The Prom’ is offensive, straight actors can play gay characters

Actors are not the roles they play — those aren’t actual doctors, lawyers and serial killers you’re watching on TV every week.

(Melinda Sue Gordon | Netflix via AP) James Corden, left, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells and Meryl Streep in a scene from "The Prom."

In some quarters, James Corden has been critically savaged for co-starring in “The Prom.” Not just for his performance, but because he was cast at all.

In the film adaptation of the Broadway musical (which starts streaming Friday on Netflix), Corden stars as Barry Glickman, a fading star who describes himself as “gay as a bucket of wigs.” And his performance is over the top. It’s every offensive gay stereotype you can think of rolled into a single character — he even flounces and lisps.

And Corden is straight.

Barry and Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) are Broadway has-beens whose new show is a flop, so they come up with a publicity stunt. They travel to a small town in Indiana where a lesbian high school student has been banned from bringing her girlfriend to the prom to lend her their support.

Multiple outlets have termed Corden’s performance “gay face.” And there’s an argument to be made that there’s some equivalency between a white actor donning black makeup and a straight actor affecting stereotypical vocals and mannerisms that are offensive to many members of the LGBTQ community.

Not all members, clearly. “The Prom” was directed by Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), who is himself gay. And, like any other group, the LGBTQ community is not a monolith. When I expressed hesitant agreement with gay men who found the gay characters on “Modern Family” stereotypical and somewhat offensive, I was informed how wrong I was by a few purporting to speak for all gay men — who dismissed and invalidated the opinions of others.

Maybe the reaction to the Barry Glickman character in “The Prom” would’ve been different if a gay actor had been cast. Probably. Although if a gay actor had camped it up the way Corden does, there definitely would still have been criticism.

Jesse Hassenger, who has written for The AV Club and Polygon, tweeted that he “used to think that it was permissible for a straight actor to play a gay character in some circumstances; now I’m willing to go hard-line against it if it means denying James Corden even one future role.”

He was being hyperbolic, of course. But others are saying that with a straight face — that only gay actors should be cast in gay roles. And that’s carrying things several steps too far.

Let’s not ignore that a lot of straight actors have turned in amazing performances as gay characters, including Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia,” Sean Penn in “Milk” and Olivia Colman in “The Favorite” — who all won Oscars.

And let’s not ignore that a lot of gay actors have created indelible straight characters — Neil Patrick Harris as womanizing Barney on “How I Met Your Mother”; Sara Gilbert as Darlene on “Roseanne”/”The Conners”; all the way back (and beyond) to Richard Chamberlain as “Dr. Kildare.”

If we’re going to make a rule that only gay actors can play gay roles, then can only straight actors play straight roles? With the limited number of jobs that would be available, that would destroy the livelihoods and careers of pretty much all the gay actors.

Actors are not the roles they play — unless you think those are actual doctors, lawyers and serial killers you’re watching on TV every week. They’re acting.

And, no, casting straight actors in gay roles is not the same as casting white actors in roles that were intended to be Asian, Hispanic or Black. When that happens, it changes the characters in a fundamental way that devalues and erases diversity.

Are there real gay men out there who behave a lot like Corden does in “The Prom”? Absolutely. Is it brave or foolhardy for a straight man to play a role like that in 2020? Foolhardy.

Murphy didn’t do Corden any favors by casting him. Corden didn’t do himself any favors by accepting the role.

But that does not mean that straight men can’t play gay characters.

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